European Art cinema and Italian Neo-realism: 'Ladri di biciclette'
Italian Neo-realism emerged in the 1940s as a key movement in cinema history, that changed the filmmaking landscape at the end of the two World Wars (Ndalianis 2007, p.83). At that time, many artists felt the need to give a meaning to the terrible events they had faced, and to express deep feelings that not only belong to them, but to everyone who had been touched by the war.
In fact, many artistic productions were used as an instrument to analyze human spirit and modern society, and to take distance not only from the dictatorial regimes that had governed Europe for the past decades, but from Hollywood productions as well. This innovative cinema attitude was defined “Art cinema”.
Its sensibility stems from its ability to recreate a sense of loss of knowledge on a world that had been deeply changed by the wars, using new features such as a ‘looser narrative form that breaks up linearity and causality through the use of techniques such as ellipsis [...], ‘dead time’ [...] and an ‘open-ended structure’ (Ndalianis 2007, p.83).
Italian Neo-realism was born with the intent to create a new type of cinema, completely different in contents and style from the classic pre-fascist movies and the propaganda films of the two Wars.
The whole movement was interested in exploring the real historical events and their devastating effects that had taken place in Europe throughout those years. As it is a declination of the Art cinema, by exploring its characteristics it is possible to underline the main features of Art cinema, that are common to all movements that belong to it.
In 1945, two years after the fall of Mussolini and the crisis of fascism, ‘Roma città aperta’ by Rossellini was released. This film exemplifies the increasing liberation process from dictatorship, and represents the first phase of Neo-realism: in fact, at this stage the films looked critically at the war, dealing with recent issues such as conflicts, resistance, Liberation and violence (‘una prima fase che affronta temi più recenti, come ad esempio gli anni della Guerra e della resistenza’) (Sorrentino, 2017). Three years later, ‘Ladri di biciclette’ by De Sica started a new period of this movement; as Sorrentino (2017) argues, it was more focused on social matters compared to earlier Neo-realism, and the films produced in this phase can be considered as historical documents (‘e una seconda fase, a partire dal 1948, che affronta tematiche sociali [...] riprendendo l’Italia di quegli anni, e facendo di queste pellicole dei documenti storici’).
This second period came when Italian directors had come to an impasse constituted by a risk of plagiarism that was caused by the huge number of films that dealt the same subjects.
Moreover, many directors were bored with post-war thematics, and were searching for something new: as Bazin (2004, p.64) states, from this perspective, Ladri di biciclette was an attempt to innovate the aesthetic of Neo-realism. In fact, De Sica’s masterpiece includes all the main features of Italian Neo-realism, and reflects those of Art cinema, at two different levels: content and style.
First of all, ordinariness and simplicity are central in this film, as far as having the storyline interpreted by non-professional actors and showing daily events, with the lack of a precise plot. Casualty reigns, and evokes the impossibility to control the happenings in our lives.
The future’s unpredictability fills every little action with drama, because it is impossible to know how much something that seems to be unimportant, such as the place where Antonio leaves his bike the first day of work or the decision of Antoine, the main character of Les quatre cents coups, to steal the typewriter, can influence our destiny.
Secondly, the choice of telling plausible stories of poor, unknown people captures the typical neo-realist habit of implicitly complaining about a series of social issues that concern everyone, without explaining them, but by simply presenting them by ‘putting common stories of Italian people on the screen’ (Pugliese, 2017) .
In other words, there is no need to manipulate reality, as the facts speak for themselves. As Bazin ( 2004, p. 66) underlines, ‘the thesis emerges fully armed and all the more irrefutable because it is presented to us as something thrown in into the bargain. It is our intelligence that discerns and shapes it, not the film’.
From a stylistic perspective, the choice of reflecting reality as much as possible, the willingness of taking distance from Hollywood films and the lack of founds encouraged directors to shoot outdoor scenes, favouring natural rather than artificial lights. As a proof of this, Bazin (2004, p. 68) notices that Ladri di biciclette is all about walking in a city, as well as Antoine from Les quatre cents coups passes a lot of time wandering around Paris with his friend rather than going to school.
To American ellipses that prefers the prosecution of the story, auteurs preferred long takes and dead times, in order to follow the movements of the characters as they would happen in reality, with their realistic timings. In this regard, Zavattini (1979, p.83 cited in Istituto Treccani, 2004), talks about the ‘tailing theory’ (‘teoria del pedinamento’) , which express the idea that life should be depicted by cinema (‘sognando che la vita si affacciasse direttamente sullo schermo’), because the time is ripe to follow humans with the camera (‘il tempo è maturo per […] pedinare gli uomini con la macchina da presa’).
Also the opened ending emphasizes the idea that the story displayed continues after the end of the footage, as well as the open frames suggest that action also happens outside the shots. Thereby, neo-realist films come closer to documentaries, since filmmakers represent immediate reality using the camera, filtered by their subjective point of view (Nowell-Smith 2011, p.237). Finally, Neo-realism is a way to make films that conveys not only social messages, but also meanings, like the importance that a single bicycle might have for a man and for the plot, as well as shared human values, such as family and shared history. This new importance given to the semantic dimension will also be present in Nouvelle Vague movies.
The sequence of the rainstorm in Ladri di biciclette, that suspends Antonio’s researches for a while , is perfect to reflect on the use of space. In fact, it is filmed in an outdoor location, the local market, where Antonio and Bruno arrive accompanied by a man in a car.
The people on the screen move back and forth, in all the directions, coming in and out of the frame as if the camera represented a spectator’s visual field. When the rain arrives, movements become frenetic, people run everywhere, and suddenly, after all this chaos, a long series of shots depicts people, among whom we can find Antonio and Bruno, standing still under a porch.
This unexpected immobility stresses even more the amount of motions overall present in the film, and feels like a pause for breath before the thief’s research starts again (indeed, as soon as the rain stops, Antonio spots a possible criminal, and tries to follow him). The presence of the rain makes the sequence even more realistic, and increases the discomfort of the characters, who get wet and trip exactly as it would happen in reality.
The first take filmed at the market is broad, to define the new environment, the movements of the other subjects in the frame, and the entrance of Antonio and Bruno in the scene with the car, which introduces them in the new location without any cut. They are filmed from afar, full-length, still, as they are trying to decide what to do. Then, in an almost dreamlike image, combined with an atmospheric music, the two move closer to the camera, surrounded by a bunch of uncatchable cyclists that are fleeing away.
In this sequence, the broad frames, used to portray the confusion and the actions, are alternated with closer zooms, that underline the expressions of Antonio, whom, worried, turns around many times, wandering for a bit before noticing that he soon needs to find shelter from the weather. Within the two characters there is a mutual but tacit love, all expressed by the meaningful gesture: the child doesn’t explicitly complain with his father because of the rain, as he understands that Antonio has worse problems, while the main character takes care of his son, giving him a caress on his head and napkin when he falls down and gets dirty with mud.
The presence of the child doesn’t change the story, but allows to analyze the events with a more dramatic perspective; Bruno is ‘the intimate witness of the tragedy, its private chorus’ (Bazin 2004, p. 67). Moving on, in this sequence music alternates with diegetic sounds, such as the screams, the squeals of bicycles’ brakes, the sound of the rain and the steps of people. This jumble of sounds recreates realistically the chaos caused by a sudden rainstorm, as well as the two minutes and a half series of shots dedicated to the porch suggests the length of a sudden rainstorm.
In one of the last sequences of the film, the two characters arrive outside a crowded stadium, in a clearing filled with the public’s bicycles. This scene is introduced by three long takes that depict Antonio and Bruno wandering around Rome, that once again give a sense of the slow march of time.
De Sica follows the three long takes, that slowly increase the tension, with 28 forceful quicker shots full of suspense, that film the protagonist up close, following his movements, dipping the audience into the film more than ever and showing without any word, but with Antonio’s expressions and anxious gestures, his indecision in stealing or not one of the bicycles.
The pressure reaches its peak when Antonio’s thoughts are substituted by action, and music changes consequently: he gives some money to the son, ordering him to take the tram and go away.
His words are the final sentence, way more interesting than their consequences, as they represent the turning point, the moment in which the protagonist decides to became a thief, giving the story an apparent circularity and to the title, as also Pugliese (2017) notices, the reason why it was put to the plural form, ‘Ladri’ (thieves) instead of ‘Ladro’ (thief). This moment is meaningful, because it carries out the implicit social issues shown across the whole film, demonstrating that, to survive, the poor have to steal from each other (Bazin 2004, p. 65).
Ladri di biciclette is the archetype of pure cinema (Bazin 2004, p.73). As the critic says, ‘No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality there is no more cinema’ (Bazin 2004, p.73).
This masterpiece displays authentic life as only few films had done before, and its inner strength will be later on reprise in other works of this and other directors, such as Umberto D. (De Sica and Zavattini, 1952), which, as many other movies, was deemed as disrespectful of public morality because it insists too much on Italy’s backwardness rather than focusing on the Government’s positive actions.
Ladri di biciclette reflects European Art cinema sensibility for its ability to present emotions, concerns and hopes of the 20th century’s working class, and it is a starting point for a new period in cinema history, that changes and enriches the global filmmaking landscape.
Ndalianis, A 2007, ‘Art cinema’, in P Cook (ed.), The cinema book, BFI, pp.83-87.
Bazin, A 2004, ‘Bycicle thief’, In Bazin, A & alii, What is cinema?: Volume II , University of California press, pp. 62-73, ProQuest Ebook Central.
Zavattini, C 1979, ‘Neorealismo ecc’, p. 83 in Istituto Treccani (ed.), Enciclopedia Treccani, 2004, viewed 26 August 2018, http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/teorie-del-cinema_(Enciclopedia-del-Cinema)/
Nowell-Smith, G 2011, ‘Italian Neo-Realism’, in P Cook (ed.), The cinema book, BFI, p. 237
De Sica, V (dir.) 1948, Ladri di biciclette, streaming video , P.D.S.
Sorrentino, E 2017, Storia del cinema #17- Neorealismo Italiano, video, You Tube, 1 August, viewed 25 August 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvSzffpEn_w
Pugliese, A 2017, Italian Neorealism: A Revolutionary Cinematic Movement, video, You Tube, 3 May, viewed 28 August 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GNP8cQYRKU
Howard, S 2013, Italian Neo-Realism: A History through film, video, Yout Tube, 4 March, viewed 26 August 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAhAgyXHC4M